The arts as an ally.
When Brigham Young led his Mormon flock to Utah, he instructed them to first build a Temple that would be used only by Mormons for worship. The second project, interestingly, was to build a center for the performing arts that could be used by the entire community. Young viewed the arts – where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir is only the most visible example – as an ally for connecting Sunday to Monday.1 Indeed, sociologist Robert Wuthnow, director of the Center for Religion at Princeton University, points to surveys indicating “people with greater exposure to the arts were more interested in spiritual growth, devoted more to it and more regularly engaged” in practicing their faith. It seems the most vigorous people of faith embrace the arts as “allies, not adversaries.”2
The arts and maturity.
This is why “Christian faith – no matter how enthusiastically proclaimed by evangelists, how ably expounded by theologians and philosophers” – cannot be sustained for long without the support of a nurturing culture.3 The arts shape culture and are part of the “total harvest of thinking and feeling” that helps us grasp meaning… not just facts.4 But how do they accomplish this? The key is in understanding the Christian gospel as a story consisting of four interlocking ideas: how life ought to be (Creation), how life actually is (The Fall), how life can be made better (Redemption) and what it will be one day (i.e., the final Restoration). This “four-chapter” gospel once framed what art ought to be, usually is, what it can become, and what it will be.
What the arts ought to be.
The arts in their broadest meaning are an expression of truth and beauty, involving the ways we imagine, order, and enjoy God’s creation. This view that the arts ought to reflect reality continued right through the Middle Ages. Thomas Aquinas, for example, defined the arts as an “ordering of reason.” Duns Scotus said it was “the right idea of what is to be produced” while Hugh of Saint Victor wrote: “Art can be said to be a knowledge which consists in rules and regulations.”5
What art is today.
Lamentably, many of today’s artists merely view their craft as freedom of speech. And as important as that freedom is, it doesn’t help us figure out when art crosses the line from grandeur to garbage. Our fundamental freedom of speech ought to promote that which is true. When “freedom of speech is no longer respected as a procedure of the truth,” noted Walter Lippman, “and becomes the unrestricted right to exploit the ignorance, and to incite the passions, of the people,” it has drifted from liberty to litter.6 In today’s world, we need to break out of the cramped idea that art is fundamentally a free speech issue. When the arts return to a procedure of truth, they help us “remember why freedom of speech is worth the pain and trouble of defending it.”7
What the arts can be.
So what can we do about the current state of the arts? Good art, like a good book, tells the truth about the human condition. We need artists who can promote a vision for the way life should be; lamenting whatever is broken and/or sorrowful, celebrating what is good and true, and helping us imagine a better world.
What the arts will be.
But, as Peggy Lee crooned, is that all there is to art? There’s an idea bandied about by Christians saying the return of Jesus includes the torching of everything except Holy Scripture and human souls. In other words, today’s art is not eternal. But Lesslie Newbigin paints a different picture. Drawing from the Book of Revelation, he writes “the achievements of human civilization, art, technology, and culture are not obliterated. All that is unclean is excluded, but all that is worthy will find its place as an offering to the king of kings.”8 In the “four-chapter” gospel, all good art finds its place in the galleries of eternity.
This view of the arts means the task of the church is to “weld together imagination and experience.”9 The arts are an indispensable part of this endeavor because they are sneaky, upstream, and make truth coherent. “Spiritual awakening will not occur when Christian doctrines are better defended;” cautioned Lendor Calder, “rather, it will occur when holy imaginations make the Christian story more likely to be appreciated.” Don’t try to win points by merely reciting The Da Vinci Code’s factual errors. Reframe a “four-chapter” picture of what the arts are supposed to be about. Brigham Young understood this, which might be why the Mormon faith is growing rapidly while evangelical churches have flat lined over the past 30 years.10 If we adopted an East Wing Strategy, we’d sneak upstream and invest in young artists, teach about the arts, and publish better books that make the “four-chapter” Story coherent and compelling.
1 On this point, see Philip M. Burgess: Utah and America’s New Economy: Expanding the Winners’ Circle, (Salt Lake City: Summit Publishing, 2002).
2 “Feeling God’s Spirit Through the Arts,” Washington Post, February 5, 2005, B9
3 Robert Louis Wilken, “The Church as Culture,” First Things (April 2004)
4 “Four Quartets,” by T.S. Eliot
5 Tatarkiewicz, W., “Classification of the Arts,” The Dictionary of the History of Ideas, Volume 1. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, p.462
6 Walter Lippman, Essays in the Public Philosophy, chapter 9, section 3, pp. 129–30
8 Leslie Newbigin, The Gospel In A Pluralistic Society, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1898), p.115
9 Warren Wiersbe, Preaching and Teaching with Imagination, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), p.81
10 Rodney Stark, Reid L. Neilson, The Rise of Mormonism (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005)